The privilege of being a minimalist

It has been debated in many articles and talks, “Is being a minimalist a privilege?” Most of them concluded that “Yes, it is”. But could minimalist thinking, the privilege that it is, benefit both the poor and the rich?

I am writing this sitting at a public table in Westfield (a huge mall in London). In front of me is Zara Home and on their big window it says, Join life. Beneath this, it is explained that the decorative bottles you see there are made from 100% recycled glass. Also, it states that the manufacturing techniques used required less energy than the usual ones. Therefore, Zara is boasting about how they are helping the planet. At the same time the Amazon rainforest is burning because of both natural causes and human impact (this article was written when this was happening).

Sustainability, minimalism, eco-friendly, recycled, zero waste. These are all terms that became massive trends in the past few years. It is argued that the consumer is more and more interested in the sustainable aspect of a brand. But is there a difference between spending a day at Westfield buying recycled labelled items or the usual ones besides the price? For my conscience it would be, but for the rest of the planet I don’t know if paying more for a recycled bottle from a huge brand like Zara will actually help.

How about ditching the trip to Westfield for a trip to the farmers market or the charity shop on your street? Well, I am sitting here in the heart of consumption telling you not to come join me. In my defence, I am not here to shop. I am here to write. And what better place to write about consuming less and the privilege of living with less than a mall?
I don’t consider myself a minimalist, I would say I am still working out what minimalism is for me because it is not a set of rules that all of us must follow. I still own lots of things, but I try to be a mindful consumer. The most important value of a minimalist lifestyle is to reduce our consumption which potentially will lead us to a simpler, happier life.

In terms of aesthetic, minimalism is definitely a trend these days. In the last seasons we’ve seen several designers taking a minimalist approach in their collections. From Rick Owen’s brutal aesthetic that we are already so familiar with, to the Valentino’s fluid black dresses or Balmain’s white structured outfits, to the pioneers of minimalist aesthetic such as Celine, Victoria Beckham or Yoji Yamamoto. Now, how long is the road from a minimalist aesthetic to a minimalist lifestyle?

As explained in Harriet Walker’s book, Less is more, the term minimalism was first coined in 1960 when a group of artists in New York rejected traditional representation in painting and sculpture and chose to pursue a new mode that owed as little as possible to the physical existence of an object (see for instance the work of Donald Judd). Funnily enough, around 1965 the term was used as an insult by Richard Whollhein, a British philosopher, in an essay for Arts Magazine. He referred to the work of some artists as “minimal art content”, which actually meant lack of art.

Eventually, minimalism became a recognized art-historical movement, but the term slightly changed its meaning through the years. At first, it was a way for artists to shock the viewers, but then it became a style enjoyed and consumed by the large masses. These days minimalism is also closely linked to the idea of self-improvement. In an article for the New York Times, Kyle Chayka wrote:

“It takes a lot to be minimalist: social capital, a safety net and access to the internet. The technology we call minimalist might fit in our pockets, but it depends on a vast infrastructure of grim, air-conditioned server farms and even grimmer Chinese factories.
The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness. We misinterpret material renunciation, austere aesthetics and blank, emptied spaces as symbols of capitalist absolution, when these trends really just provide us with further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less.”

-Klye Chayka, The Gospel of ‘Minimalism’ (2016), NYT

From the start we’ve established that being a minimalist requires some kind of privilege. Being a consumer of minimalist trends, as blank and austere as they are, you are still consuming and buying, which is anyway the purpose of a trend, even if it tries to spread a beneficial message for the environment. So, yes, as Kyle said minimalism may pursue you to buy more, but I would add that you would especially do that if you are a trend hunter.

If we take a look beyond the trend and dive into minimalist thinking, we might find some benefits that you can apply regardless of your capital (but yes you need some capital). Thinking that both a poor man and a rich one have a similar degree of unhappiness, which is possible according to the hedonic treadmill, we can find a common root for their unhappiness which is having. Having too little or having too much and still feeling like crap. The hedonic treadmill, or the hedonic adaptation is a theory developed by Brickman and Campbell in 1971 and it says that humans tend to return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major negative or positive events in their life.

Therefore, whatever happens we get back to a neutral state, that I don’t think we really identify as happiness, nor do we attribute it to unhappiness. Since birth, we learn that we must own things to be happy. We don’t learn as much about how we feel whilst pursuing these goals of having money, a house, a car or a huge tv. Therefore, we either keep buying and disposing or wish we could do that. By becoming mindful of what we already have, how we consume, how little we need to be comfortable, regardless the social status we have, our way of perceiving happiness might change along with creating positive change for the environment.

So, yes, minimalism implies privilege, but it also implies that you are responsible for what and how you consume, that you know what’s behind a brand you choose, that you don’t become attached to material goods, that you minimize your waste, that you look inside yourself for happiness and not in the shops’ windows.

*This article is part of Divest Magazine

Leave a Reply